In this decisive moment where marriage and family life are being challenged and threatened, it is important to restate exactly what marriage is – and why it is so crucial to understand that marriage is a covenant between a male and a female.
Without this understanding, all other types of "marriage" become possible. Just as some wish to redefine marriage to incorporate other relationships, so those who believe marriage to be a covenant need to reclaim and teach the true nature of marriage. To this end, we need to understand a covenant, a contract, the difference between the two, and how this difference forms the essence of a true marriage.
A secular understanding of the term "covenant" suggests that it is an agreement with stipulations that must be met by the parties involved. However, this definition can and does cheat mankind of something much more than a mere contract.
The covenant idea is central to our knowledge of God and Scripture and while society uses the terms "covenant" and "contract" interchangeably, the differences between them are profound. With a contract, what are exchanged are things whereas with a covenant what is exchanged is "essence of self". Contracts exchange material. Covenants exchange the essence of the human being.
D.J. McCarthy defines covenant, "as a means by which the ancient world took to extend relationships beyond the natural unity of blood". To be related by blood means a familial relationship. However, to extend this type of relationship, it is done via means of a covenant. Indeed, covenant is a type of familial bond based on an oath.
The Hebrew word for covenant, berit, means to "bind" or to "fetter" and in its etymology the word means to bind together by blood. There is sacredness to the relationship, which is related by blood or by extension, by covenant, because these relationships cannot be broken as the individuals are "fettered."
God's word in Scripture is based on a series of covenants. Indeed we see how important the covenant idea is to God, and how very much He is involved in the covenants which He establishes with His people. Through the covenants, God "binds" Himself to the human family. The relationship is sacred because it is based on God's "binding" love for His family.
We can understand the covenants and the importance of them by looking at the progression of covenant structures and how they grew from the first ever-made covenant, a marriage covenant (Adam and Eve), followed by family covenant (Noah), a tribal covenant (Abraham), national covenant (Moses), kingdom covenant (David), and, finally, the definitive universal covenant with Jesus Christ. The new family is begun by the new Adam (Jesus). Through covenants, God expanded and extended His relationship until the time His ultimate relationship in and through Jesus was fulfilled and sealed in the new covenant.
In considering "covenant", it is also important to think of the concept of "oath." These two terms appear interchangeably in Scripture. There is an oath sworn when a covenant is made but not when a contract is signed. It is the oath which unites individuals in a lifelong "fettered" covenantal relationship. It is a promise of faithfulness in and to the relationship. The words "I will" spoken by the covenanting couple, (marriage) or by God (to His people), "you are my people and I will be your God," are the pledge of fidelity "or sacred oath sworn by the faithful love with which Christ loves His Church and sanctifies her through His sacrificial love."
St Augustine also understood St Paul's word mysterion to mean Sacramentum or "oath" which Jesus Christ swore for and on behalf of His bride. As Adam had failed to protect his bride (Eve) and therefore not loving her into eternal life, so Jesus' Sacramentum (oath) for and on behalf of His bride was that He would remain faithful to her until the end of time. Fidelity to the Sacramentum (oath) ensured the imaging of the bride into a reflection of the groom. J. Martos describes the Sacramentum of marriage as "not only a sacred sign of a divine reality but ... also a sacred bond between a husband and wife."
The Sacramentum, because of its divine origin, could not be rendered empty or barren. The covenant oath was until death and could not be dissolved because it took on the character of family bond (chain, fetter) and was therefore unbreakable. Just as Jesus' fidelity toward His bride is until death or until the "end of time" so too is the bond between a covenanted married couple, (male/female) unto "the end of time" and "Until death us do part."
Marriage was not always understood as a sacrament imbued with sacred properties, but it was clearly understood from the beginning that marriage was in the desires of God. From the beginning and through the Fall, marriage and procreation were not cursed. These were blessed and remained blessed. God blessed marriage, with a special blessing which makes clear its goodness "as proof of His blessing, receive from God children who crowd about the family table" (A.G. Martimort).
"Human marriage finds its eternal and proper reality, in the bridal relationship of God with His people" (R. Haughton). Perhaps in the mysterious nature of the covenant, it may be possible to see why marriage is both indissoluble and only between a man and a woman. It is a relationship of fecundity, steadfastness and fidelity.
Progressive Jewish understanding of their relationship to God was seen as evolving "not from human marriage to divine covenant but from divine covenant to human marriage." So in time the Hebrew people "gradually discovered an explicit place for marriage in the religious scheme of life." Marriage for the Hebrew people gradually acquired a dimension of sacredness because a new meaning was read into the relationship between Yahweh and His people and Yahweh's character, of faithfulness, self-giving and steadfast love. "I have loved you with an everlasting love therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you." The prophets Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Malachi turned frequently to the image of marriage. "Marriage became, as it were, a mirror in which something of God's love was seen as reflected."
The idea of covenant relationship is continued in the New Testament. The new covenant entered into by God and His people is seen through God's own Son Jesus Christ and His redeeming action on Calvary. Through His death and resurrection Jesus established the new covenant in which He unites Himself to His people. His blood sealed the covenant and fulfilled all the stipulations set out, just as the Old Covenant was sealed with the blood of animals offered as peace offerings.
Old Testament covenants, whilst initiated by God Himself, always involved human responses and were therefore temporary and conditional. The New Testament espousal, between God and mankind, has been accomplished by Jesus Christ and is eternal. This covenant, and the relationship between the covenant partners Jesus and His bride the Church, is assured because of His words and promise and oath "I am with you always."
The new covenant may be seen in the context of the "great mystery" of God's mighty acts in and through Jesus Christ and His mystical body the Church. The new covenant of Jesus Christ is realised, actualised and consummated within His new creation. In union with His spouse the Church they give birth to children for God's Kingdom.
To understand covenants it must first be understood that covenants are not only what God "does" with human persons but also "what" God is. God's promises are kept because He is the promise itself. For mankind the promise was redemption through His own design and using what He had originally made: the human person. The history of covenants is the timeline of salvation and each new covenant took into account expansion of what He had made, until finally in Jesus, He becomes what He has made, to fulfill His own promise to redeem.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh slowly emerged as the "bridegroom", a symbol of divine fidelity. In the New Testament it is Jesus who is the "bridegroom." Jesus is the ultimate symbol of "bridegroom" because He is both the divine and the human bridegroom. In death He gave birth to her, the Church, and with utmost fidelity He loves her. Unlike Adam He dies for His bride in order to give birth to her and unlike Adam He "binds" Himself to her in faithfulness: "In this sacrifice there is entirely revealed that plan which God has imprinted on the humanity of man and woman since their creation."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that, "The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptised persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant."
Indeed, it can truly be called a sacrament of the new covenant because it is a sacrament of persons in love with one another. They exchange the essence of self, not goods: love, faithfulness and endurance; and this model of love is based upon the love of Christ (the bridegroom) for His very own bride. "It is the model and pattern of all human love."
The late Blessed John Paul II saw marriage as the restoration of the "primordial sacrament", the perfect harmony of the "covenant" of creation in Eden – a covenant with God and between man and woman. In the covenant of grace and election, God chooses us and espouses Himself to us.
St Paul in Ephesians reveals marriage as the "sacrament of redemption." By baptism, men and women are drawn through marriage into the eternal spousal covenant of Christ. Matrimony is the sacrament of the new covenant because it is the sacrament of the great "mystery" of Jesus Christ and His Church.
Covenant love is underpinned by unhindered "donation" of self in a dimension of divine love. Total, free, fruitful loving donation of self, which is the mystery of called love, namely covenant love.